St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

A Times Editorial

Reaching out to Hispanics

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


The Clearwater Police Department has set an ambitious goal: to build bridges with a portion of the local community that is distrustful and sometimes hostile toward law enforcement.

The Clearwater Police Department has set an ambitious goal: to build bridges with a portion of the local community that is distrustful and sometimes hostile toward law enforcement.

For several years Clearwater officials have been aware -- police officials perhaps more than any others -- that Hispanics represented a rapidly growing segment of the city population. Anyone who drives through the older neighborhoods surrounding the city's downtown core is soon made aware of the changes in the population. Hispanics make up at least 9 percent of the city population, likely more.

The Clearwater Police Department groped for ways to serve that population and enforce laws, but was stymied by several problems. First, few members of the police force speak Spanish fluently, and many of the Mexicans moving into Clearwater speak little or no English.

But perhaps even more difficult, the new residents were fearful and suspicious of police officers. Some had cause to be -- they were in the United States illegally. But even the legal residents came to the United States believing that police were the bad guys.

Police Chief Sid Klein began working more than two years ago on ways to solve those problems. He also sent one of his top officers to Hidalgo, Mexico, home of many of the Hispanics moving to Clearwater, to learn about that culture and its people.

Today, the Clearwater department is much better positioned to fulfill its law enforcement role in the Hispanic community. Six police officers speak Spanish fluently, and a list of interpreters has been developed to assist whenever they are needed. Klein appointed an officer to be liaison to the Hispanic community.

Though that officer tried to build relationships by attending soccer games and festivals and reaching out to help Hispanic neighborhoods, the gulf between police and the community still was not narrowing very swiftly.

A new program being launched by the Police Department in partnership with the YWCA of Tampa Bay may accomplish more than any previous efforts.

The partnership hopes to open a Hispanic outreach center in a city-owned building near downtown Clearwater. The building, a former day care center, will be renovated to provide a variety of services, including language classes, interpreters, victim advocates, training rooms, and offices for the Police Department's Hispanic liaison officer, the Mexican consulate and the government of Hidalgo.

But perhaps the most important offering at the center will be day care at a reasonable price for children ages 12 months to 5 years old. Lack of affordable child care has prevented many of the Hispanic women from working, or has forced them to leave their children in less-than-adequate circumstances. The YWCA will provide the child care with a bilingual staff.

The city is being asked to lease the building to the YWCA for $1 a year, to maintain the outside of the building and to provide $50,000 in drug forfeiture money toward building renovations. The YWCA and grant funds will pay for remaining costs.

It is easy to see how the center may one day need to be expanded to offer even more services, such as space to socialize or to receive medical screenings; to provide homemaking, gardening or parenting classes; to teach Spanish to city employees who frequently interact with Hispanics, such as police officers, firefighters and code enforcement officials; to offer job fairs or GED classes.

Klein and the Police Department, as well as the YWCA, deserve accolades for working hard to find ways to reach out to Clearwater's exploding Hispanic population, even when it wasn't easy, even when it wasn't sought by the new residents.

No one benefits when one portion of the city's population is isolated, either by wish or circumstance. As Clearwater's Hispanic residents see their lives improved by these efforts, their suspicion not only will decline, but they will be in a better position to make their own unique contributions to the larger community.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.